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Weber Fine Arts Building: The Fine Arts Building That Almost Wasn’t

by Charles Reed

Even though the fermentation of the ideas for a new Fine Arts building began as early as 1970 when a large section of West Omaha was purchased and/or donated by several families, it took almost two decades to get anything mobilized. What would become the Weber Fine Arts Building began its life in the mind of then-Chancellor Del Weber in 1987 when homes on the west end of campus were slated for demolition to make way for new campus buildings.

One of these buildings was a Fine Arts building which would house such programs as art, creative writing and music.

The initial step for construction, a $400,000 allocation for hiring architects and construction workers, was approved in January of 1988 by Nebraska Legislature.

Then-Gov. Kay Orr vetoed the project but the veto was overridden by the Legislature soon after. Once architects were hired, the actual cost of everything Weber wanted ballooned from $6.4 million to $9.95 million to $13.3 million according to reports in the Gateway.

The Legislature stayed firm in their desire to support the project, despite the cost increase, but Orr continued her opposition and did not allocate funds in the next two-year budget.

Students at UNO, however, began to send letters to the Legislature almost as soon as Orr’s decision was official in a move orchestrated by the student senate, while Chancellor Weber personally appealed to state senators to continue with their plans for funding rather than side with Orr in withholding the funds.

In December 1988 the Board of Regents approved the building and in April 1989 the Senate Appropriations Committee voted to appropriate $11.4 million to UNO, almost $2 million short of the earlier estimate needed. However, with a majority of the funds in place, a tentative completion date for the building in 1992 was made in June.

Defined as "An inhabited sculpture" by then-Fine Arts Dean David Shrader, the building would include classroom spaces, several performance spaces and art studios.

The building would replace an Asian-styled house which had been home to the UNO art gallery and Fine Arts dean’s offices since 1975. As plans for a new building were being completed, the house was lifted, whole, off its foundations and carted a couple of miles west where it currently sits and serves as a home to Engineering professor Bing Chen.

A design was ultimately completed in 1990 and approved by the Board of Regents in a 5-2 vote despite concern over the uniquely-curved exterior made of what some called “wiggle walls.” The concerns, specifically those of Board of Regent member Robert Allen, made a big splash both on campus and in the larger Omaha community that summer.

The problems didn’t stop there. In late 1990 a lid was proposed for all on-campus spending from 1991 to 1993 to help balance the state budget but it ended up not affecting the construction of the building and crews began moving equipment into place in September 1990 and construction began in earnest soon after, in late October.

The building was completed and opened by the first week of school in 1992 to serve as a home for the Art, Dramatic Arts (Theatre), Art History and Writer's Workshop departments and the College of Fine Arts dean, David Shrader.

It was six years later that the building was dedicated in honor of Chancellor Del Weber and his wife Lou Ann. Weber had retired from his role as chancellor at UNO the year before after 20 years of service to the university.

In the nearly two decades years since its construction, the building has been home to award-winning theater productions, high-class student artwork, cutting-edge digital media projects and much more.

It’s hard to believe, sometimes, that it was almost never built in the first place.

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